Soul Mates of the Lost Generation: The Letters of John Dos Passos and Crystal Ross
- By Lewis M. Dabney
- University of Virginia Press
- 184 pp.
- Reviewed by John P. Loonam
- November 30, 2022
Lovers are thwarted by the conventions of their era.
Like many readers, I have a fascination with artistic movements that are also social clubs — Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston eating fried fish and trying to write a play together; Pollock and de Kooning and all those poets getting drunk at the Cedar Tavern; Joni Mitchell and Graham Nash hanging out at Cass Elliot’s house in Laurel Canyon. And, of course, the artistic and social scene all others are compared to: Paris in the 1920s.
The joy of books like Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast or Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas is their focus on famous, boldfaced names. In Soul Mates of the Lost Generation, which he completed before his death in 2015, literary critic and Edmund Wilson biographer Lewis M. Dabney turns our attention to one of that circle who did not become a household name: his mother, Crystal Ross.
Ross was a quintessential example of the 1920s New Woman. She drove a car, moved to Europe, got her Ph.D. in comparative literature, and was briefly engaged to John Dos Passos, who was writing his breakthrough novel, Manhattan Transfer, at the time. Their relationship was closer emotionally than it was geographically, sustained by long, generally honest and interesting letters.
Dabney inherited those letters and has turned them into a biography of the engagement his mother broke off before marrying his father, a time when she was close enough to the literary scene to be referred to in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises but peripheral enough not to be named — she is the “swell girl” who lives in Strasbourg and whom Jake and Frances briefly consider visiting.
Ross grew up outside of Austin, Texas, in a tight, rather conventional family. She was especially close to her father, whose desire for her to live a proper woman’s life constrained her sense of freedom throughout her early adulthood. For a time, Ross moved beyond her father’s expectations by earning degrees in literature from the University of Texas in 1921 and Columbia in 1922, then traveling to France to pursue a doctorate in Strasbourg. In between these projects, she met Dos Passos. It must have been an intense encounter; soon after, they began a correspondence that would remain central to each of them for almost a decade.
Dos Passos was in New York to see her off on her move to Strasbourg. Ross asked him to come with her. He asked her to come to Paris with him. Instead, they remained separated, writing to each other regularly. A year later, she did visit him in Paris, and they spent several months together, befriending the newlywed Hemingways. Ross became close to Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley, and helped care for their baby, Bumby.
She also helped correct the page proofs of Hemingway’s first story collection, In Our Time, and later was among the first to publish essays on those stories. She and Dos Passos traveled with Hemingway to the South of France and to Pamplona. It was on this trip that Dos Passos asked Ross to marry him. When she returned to Strasbourg, they considered themselves engaged, though their relationship was again bound mainly by correspondence.
Ross knew her father was against the marriage. The young, avant-garde novelist seemed to have no means of supporting her. Despite her apparent liberation, Ross was too respectful of her family to go against his wishes. For a time, she lobbied to change her father’s mind while the lovers made various plans to be together — in New York, in Paris, in Italy, again in New York — repeatedly putting off their rendezvous to finish respective projects. Finally, when Ross had completed her doctorat and Dos Passos had finished Manhattan Transfer, she returned to the States.
Dos Passos was there to greet her, but so was her father, who sent Ross home to Texas to care for her supposedly ailing mother. The relationship was over. Crystal Ross could do many things unusual for women at the time, but defying her father wasn’t one of them.
The letters continued for several years, now narrating how the lovers were moving on from one another. Ross met a young lawyer and settled down to an ordinary middle-class life (which included being mother to this book’s author), while Dos Passos also married, wrote his famous U.S.A. trilogy, fought in the Spanish Civil War, and drifted into conservatism.
There is an obvious vacuum at the center of this story, as there was in the relationship it portrays. It is difficult to get a picture of a couple’s life together when it exists mostly on paper and by necessity focuses on their time apart. What most powerfully emerges in Soul Mates of the Lost Generation is the portrait of a vivacious, intelligent woman who was almost independent enough to carve out a truly rebellious path for herself.
While Dabney may not have been in a position to discern any regret on his mother’s part, the reader gets a sense of something lost in Ross’ breakup with Dos Passos. Her budding career as an academic and critic was derailed when her new husband discouraged her from working, and while Dabney portrays her as a caring wife and mother, he is honest about her depression and alcoholism.
Crystal Ross Dabney lived a long life and was a vital presence for her children and grandchildren, but once she had written to her father of her hope “that when life beckoned I’d get up and follow the call.” A contemporary reader can’t help but wonder what might have happened if she’d done so.
John P. Loonam has a Ph.D. in American literature from the City University of New York and taught English in New York City public schools for over 35 years. He has published fiction in various journals and anthologies, and his short plays have been featured by the Mottola Theater Project several times. He is married and the father of two sons; the four have lived in Brooklyn long enough to be considered natives by anyone but his neighbors.